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$230,000 For a Guard Dog: Why the Wealthy Are Afraid Of Violence From Below

As inequality in the US grows, the ultra-rich are pouring their spare cash not just into private jets, but into private security. Think there's a connection?
 
 
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“Violence in the streets, aimed at the wealthy. That’s what I worry about.”

That was what an unidentified billionaire told Robert Frank of the Wall Street Journal a while back. Rich people are scared of global unrest, Frank reported, citing a survey by Insite Security and IBOPE Zogby International of people with liquid assets of $1 million or more (translation: folks who have or can get their hands on $1 million in cash fairly easily) that says 94 percent of the wealthy are concerned about “global unrest” around the world.

He noted:

Of course, Insite has an interest in getting the paranoid rich to beef up their security. Still, the numbers are backed up by other trends seen throughout the world of wealth today: the rich keeping a lower profile, hiring $230,000 guard dogs, and arming their yachts, planes and cars with military-style security features.

John Johnson, the owner of the $230,000 dog featured in the New York Times, is a former debt collector. (You can't make this stuff up.) He sold his debt collection company three years ago, but still has not just one, but six highly—and expensively—trained “executive protection dogs.” Harrison K-9 services, the trainers behind Johnson's pricey protection dogs, used to train dogs for elite military units like the Navy Seal team that raided Osama bin Laden's compound. The article doesn't say exactly how many dogs Harrison K-9 has provided for the world's rich and famous, but it does feature a quote from their head trainer saying she's trained “a thousand” dogs.

In addition to security systems, dogs and armed yachts, the security-conscious oligarch can hire a private spy company—Jellyfish, a spinoff of the notorious private security company Blackwater. Or what about their own personal drone? “Smaller, private versions of the infamous Predator” may be coming to well-heeled private citizens near you, according to the UK's Daily Mail. So far the private drones appear to only be for spying, but former Navy fighter pilot Missy Cummings told the Daily Mail, “It doesn't take a rocket scientist from MIT to tell you if we can do it for a soldier in the field, we can do it for anybody.”

So why are the rich getting paranoid? After all, here in the U.S. it looks like they don't even have to worry about their taxes returning to Clinton-era levels, let alone cope with a truly significant change to their lifestyles. Still, as the rich get richer, it seems, they get more and more worried about the rest of us coming for their wealth—and they're out to protect it by any means necessary.

David Sirota has noted that “we're fast becoming a 'let them eat cake' economy,” where ostentatious displays of wealth and arrogance seem to be an everyday occurrence as the rest of the country suffers. A private jet traffic jam was big news in the New York Times last week, because the children of the uber-rich have to get to a Maine summer camp, and driving just won't do. Maine's Tea Party governor, Paul LePage, took some time off from limiting access to the vote and picking fights with organized labor to gloat over the jet traffic:

“Love it, love it, love it,” Mr. LePage said of the private-plane traffic generated by summer camps. “I wish they’d stay a week while they’re here. This is a big business.”

While the private jet crowd is “big business,” the rest of Maine—and the country—is still suffering. And maybe that's where the fear comes in.

We've seen revolution in Tunisia and Egypt, attempts in Libya, Syria, Yemen, unrest in Greece and Spain, student protests in England, and here at home the occupation of the capitol in Madison, Wisconsin. While nothing yet in the U.S. has approached the level of organized attacks on the wealthy by the have-nots, since the financial crash even the hint that perhaps private jet owners could pay a few more dollars in taxes has been decried as class war. A few protests that actually dare approach the doorsteps of the bankers appear to be all it takes to stoke paranoia among the super-rich.

“There’s class warfare, all right,” Warren Buffett, the world's third-richest man, said in 2006, “but it’s my class, the rich class, that’s making war, and we’re winning.” Buffett had done the math and realized that he paid far less, as a fraction of his income, than the secretaries in his office.

While the Democrats have compromised again and again on economic issues that might have brought real relief to the unemployed, the Tea Party continued to direct all of its anger, its threats, its waving of guns in the direction of the man in the White House and his allies. The billionaires who poured cash into the Tea Party got their money's worth by deflecting outrage onto the president.

And we have seen violence, though not violence aimed at the rich. We saw a man fly a plane into a Texas office building in anger at the IRS and a foiled attempt to shoot up the liberal Tides Foundation and the California ACLU.

The Tea Party also helped sweep in politicians who've made the situation steadily worse. With no one left to protect the working class, inequality continues to grow. The New York Times noted that many of the “new economy”'s low-wage jobs are not sufficient to provide for a person, let alone a family, and yet those jobs are 73 percent of those added in recent months.

Matthew Stoller pointed out that the austerity measures being championed by the new right-wing governors like Florida's Rick Scott (but embraced by Democrats as well) are going to make it worse here at home before it gets better:

...these economic theories aren’t about efficiency, they are about a value system. Scott is arguing for a low trust low cost world, with no education, no regulatory standards, and low quality output. This is the dominant strain of thinking among American elites. It’s not just Rhode Island, where the teachers are literally all under threat of being fired (and where in 2010 Obama apparently sought to win the future by applauding this firing of teachers). In New York, Democratic Governor and prospective 2016 presidential candidate Andrew Cuomo is gleefullyslashing huge chunks of education and health care rather than retain a mild tax on the wealthy. This is a great way to increase crime, disease rates, and social disorder resulting from inequality.

The simple fact is that inequality is a recipe for insecurity, especially when coupled with desperation. Somewhere, the rich know this. It's no accident that the rise in incomes at the top and the drop in income at the bottom has been accompanied by a boom in private security. Not everyone, like Warren Buffett, asks “How can this be right?” but a $230,000 guard dog suggests a deep awareness of the unfair system from which the rich have profited.

And yet as our society transforms from a welfare state into a laissez-faire paradise (and especially as budget cuts come down on fire and police), we are likely to only see more of this kind of thing. Mike Konczal pointed out:

From a series of legal codes favoring creditors, a two-tier justice system that ignore abuses in foreclosures and property law, a system of surveillance dedicated to maximum observation on spending, behavior and ultimate collection of those with debt and beyond, there’s been a wide refocusing of the mechanisms of our society towards the crucial obsession of oligarchs: wealth and income defense.

It's not enough for the super-rich, apparently, to have a legal system biased in their favor, a justice system that locks up the poor and people of color while letting the wealthy off the hook, and government bailouts for the banks that created the economic crisis. That doesn't lessen the cries of “Class warfare!” or decrease the demand for private security.

Research shows (PDF) that it's not just poverty that contributes to violent crime. It's inequality. Brazil, particularly in urban areas, suffers from a sky-high homicide rate (it's reached 57 per 100,000 people a year in Rio de Janeiro) and its cities are marked by extremes of wealth—absolute poverty in the favelas, and wealth locked away behind walls and gates. Private security has become the norm for those who can afford it as few trust the police.

And yet Brazil's left-leaning government has embraced policies to lessen inequality not only for the sake of the people who suffer in poverty, but also to make their country safer for all. Inequality is dropping, and while poverty is still a problem, the government recognizes it as such. Meanwhile, we in the US seems to have learned all the wrong lessons from Brazil. Are we headed for cities where the wealthy segregate themselves behind walls and security guards, on private planes, and the poor are concentrated in miserable conditions?

We are 93rd in the world as far as equality is concerned, and if the debt ceiling deal (or as is looking increasingly more likely, the lack of one) includes a cut to Social Security benefits or an end to the unemployment extension, inequality will only get worse as the poor get, rapidly, poorer. Meanwhile the rich, as has been noted many times, are just concentrating their wealth.

Here in the U.S. in the 1930s, to stave off widespread revolt, we got the New Deal. Elites in this country realized it was worth giving in to prevent the communist revolution that was spreading in other places. In the 1960s, riots as well as mass nonviolent protests pushed LBJ and others to enact social reforms.

Conservatives, backed by an ascendant business class, have been systematically dismantling those bargains, cutting taxes, eliminating regulations, and privatizing public programs and properties ever since. There is no force like communism to give a name to the fears of the capitalists, but the rich nevertheless may look at global revolts with a shudder. As the unemployed, the working poor, and a middle class increasingly pushed downward into near-poverty struggle and new protest movements and strategies spring up, it's not just individual theft, burglary and kidnapping the rich fear—it's an organized movement targeting their wealth.

The question is now whether spreading fear among the elites of the US will be connected to the economic policies that are leaving more and more of us with no solutions—and a whole lot of rage.

Sarah Jaffe is an associate editor at AlterNet, a rabblerouser and frequent Twitterer. You can follow her at @seasonothebitch.